Black History Month

The Story of the
Underground Railroad

Revolutionary Worker #995, February 21, 1999

I'll Fly Away, O Glory!

"I never saw the day since I knew anything that I didn't want to be free."
Anthony Bingey, slave
"Sir, I write you a few lines in order to let you know that six of your hands has left the plantation--every man but Jack. They displeased me with their work and I gave some of them a few lashes, Tom with the rest. On Wednesday morning, they were missing."
Georgia overseer
writing to a slaveowner
"All the white part of mankind that he has ever seen, are enemies to him and his kindred. How can he venture where none but white faces shall greet him?"
Lewis Clarke describes his thoughts
during the escape from slavery

African slaves escaped from the first days they were brought to the shores of North America as captives. Brave hearts refused to accept the beatings, rape and cold injustice of forced labor. They escaped when their masters threatened to sell members of their families.

Many slipped away into the deep forests that surrounded the settler farms. Between 1732 and 1790, Southern newspapers posted wanted notices for 7,846 fugitives--probably a small percentage of those who ran away. One tailor named General escaped, according to a 1784 account, despite the fact that he had "both his legs cut off near the knees."

Slaveowners used every means available to prevent escape. They tried to keep slaves from learning anything about the geography of the country. They spread rumors that Native peoples ate Africans. They told the slaves that the rivers like the Ohio were thousands of miles wide and uncrossable.

Above all, the slaveowners used organized violence. They created armed posses of their class, with packs of bloodhounds trained to hunt down human beings. They hired "pattyrollers" to patrol the roads and control the movement of Black people.

After William Parker escaped with his brother from a Maryland plantation, three white men recognized them and raised the alarm. Quickly lights went on in every white farmhouse in the area. Parker said, "We heard people talking and horses galloping this way and that."

Captured slaves were brutally punished. Feet were chopped off to prevent future escapes. Slaves were branded on the face or hand with the letter "R" for runaway. Captured slaves were sometimes sold far away--as punishment and to prevent them from spreading their spirit and knowledge. George Washington sold such a runaway called "Negro Tom" to the West Indies in 1766.

In short, escape was extremely dangerous--and survival after escape was often bitterly hard. Slaves often left with little or nothing and found themselves in a hostile country unsure of where to find help.

Some slaves returned after periods in the woods--often because their masters agreed to their demands. But many tried to find their way to the legendary "maroon" communities of escaped slaves that were scattered throughout the mountains and swamps of the early U.S. Many fugitives settled permanently among Native peoples.

Escaped slaves also headed for the borders of the hated U.S.--into Seminole-controlled Florida, to the Bahamas or Mexico or Canada.

Mass escapes of slaves repeatedly took the form of armed revolts. In 1856 over 200 slaves in three counties of southwestern Texas plotted a mass escape that involved killing the slaveowners' bloodhounds and rising up together. They were helped, it was reported, by the "lower class of the Mexican population."

Courage, Conscience and Secrecy

"The first business of the anti-slavery men is to help the fugitives."
Theodore Parker,
Black abolitionist minister, Boston
"I piloted them through forests, mostly at night. Boys dressed as girls and girls as boys; on foot and on horseback, in buggies, carriages, common wagons, in and under loads of hay, straw, old furniture, boxes and bags or in boats or skiffs; on rafts and often on a pine log."
Calvin Fairbanks, white minister,
who spent 14 years in prison for his activities.
"The abolitionists act the part of friend and brothers to us and our only complaint against them is that there are so few of them."
Fugitive Slave Convention, 1850
"I want abolitionists, ignorant and infatuated barbarians as they are, to know that if chance shall throw any of them into our hands, they may expect a felon's death."
James Henry Hammond,
Congressman from South Carolina

The slaveowners were a ruling class within the U.S.--the laws and constitutions were written to legalize slave-catching and punish escape. The New England Articles of Confederation in 1643 required all European settlers to help capture escaped slaves. In 1740, North Carolina made it a crime to help escaped slaves. Such rules were written into the U.S. Constitution and then elaborated in two federal Fugitive Slave acts.

The existence of these laws showed that escaping slaves found support from the earliest days. Over the years, an illegal, organized network formed to help the escaped slaves. It was called the Underground Railroad.

The backbone of this movement was the slaves themselves, who never stopped their desperate struggle for freedom and who arrived at the doorsteps of free Blacks and anti-slavery abolitionists asking for help. Often escaped slaves returned South to free their families. A cadre of selfless fighters emerged among them, dedicating their lives to emancipation. Two escaped slaves, Elizah Anderson and John Mason, helped rescue more than 2,000 slaves. Mason was captured, sold back to slavery, then escaped again to continue his work.

The small, bitterly poor communities of free Blacks, both North and South, became base areas of the underground railroad. And over time these networks attracted support from the radical anti-slavery circles among European-Americans.

The abolitionist movement among white people had many political shades. Some believed in "moral persuasion" of slaveowners and in the promise of financial compensation. A militant section of that movement became convinced in the necessity of direct action. White supporters played a very useful role in the movement--because white people could move much more freely than even free Black people, could travel with escaped slaves and often had much more access to funds and the press.

In many parts of the country, white activists would work closely with a free Black community to develop support networks for the escaped slaves. For example, in North Elba, New York, the family of John Brown, a wool merchant, hooked up with a free Black community called Timbuktu. Together they helped slaves escape north through the Adirondack mountains toward Canada.

The movement developed a division of labor--enabling many different kinds of people to make contributions. Bold activists--called "agents" or "conductors" --operated in the slavery regions and made contact with the slaves. They would provide disguises, maps, information about reliable help and often would personally accompany the slaves on their perilous journey north.

Other activists formed "stations" of the railroad where the escaped slaves could hide, rest, receive medicine, food, and information about the next leg of their journey. The Quaker family of Levi and Catherine Coffin of Newport, Indiana were outstanding examples of such early "stationmasters." Levi Coffin was a prominent banker with the money to maintain a spacious home--that after 1826 operated as a secret "Grand Central" of the railroad. Over 20 years, 2,000 slaves stopped there for food, medical attention, clothing and shelter.

The towering Black leader Frederick Douglass, himself an escaped slave, ran the station in Rochester, New York, where hundreds of fugitive slaves found shelter.

In Delaware, the old Quaker Thomas Garret and the young Black militant Samuel Burris formed a team that worked closely with Wilmington's free Black community. Over 40 years, the Wilmington station moved more than 2,700 slaves to freedom. At one point, when Samuel Burris was captured and auctioned off as a slave, Garret secretly sent an agent to buy back his comrade.

Former slave Arnold Craston spent four years rowing hundreds of escapees from Kentucky across the Ohio River. George Burroughs, a Black porter in the Illinois border town of Cairo, ran a network on the Illinois Central railroad that smuggled runaways to Chicago. Other activists helped the escaped slaves find livelihoods and a new start.

In August 1848, 75 armed slaves in Kentucky joined up with a white college student, Patrick Doyle, and marched north toward the Ohio River. They fought two pitched battles with posses before being captured. Their leaders were executed. Doyle was imprisoned. And the others were brutalized and sent back into slavery.

It is hard to convey how controversial and persecuted this movement was. The abolitionists of the early 1800s were a very small movement--rooted in the stigmatized free Black communities and sections of the pacifist Quakers. In those days, slaves were considered property. The underground railroad was legally treated like rings of horse thieves. They were called "n*gger-stealers" and subversives. The homes of abolitionists were often burned and their presses smashed. The activists faced prison, and if caught in slaveowners' territory, they faced execution. And yet these fighters were gripped by a deep belief in the justice of their cause. If the government's law upheld slavery, then, they believed, both the law and the government were illegitimate. If public opinion was against them, then, they believed, public opinion should be changed and (if necessary) defied.

Under these conditions, the Underground Railroad adopted the tactics of an outlaw movement. The names of most members, their homes and activities were considered secret--while a few abolitionists emerged as prominent spokespeople. The activists often knew each other only by nicknames, and swore the "passengers" to secrecy. Everyone involved learned to speak in codewords so that their conversations, if overheard, would not betray their activities. Every part of their operations received a railroad term. Organizers were called "conductors" and the escaped slaves were called "passengers" or "baggage." The safe houses were "stations." Their headquarters were "Grand Central." Escape routes were called "tracks," while the Northern states and Canada were "the destination."

Women along the route sewed quilts containing secret signs and directions, and hung them on clotheslines so escaping slaves would know where to go.

Meanwhile, on the plantations themselves, the slaves borrowed language from parables of the slaveowners' religion. The slavemaster became "ol' Pharaoh." The Ohio River was "Jordan River," and the free territories of the North were the "Promised Land."

Coded songs expressed the hope of escape and emancipation. Some contained secret instructions--like "Follow the Drinkin Gourd," which explained that the Big Dipper at night would lead people north.

A Gathering Storm

As the 1800s passed, huge changes affected the situation of the slaves. Slave labor carved vast cotton plantations out of the forests of Alabama and Mississippi--to meet the demands of new capitalist textile mills in England and New England.

Between 1790 and 1860 the slave population of the U.S. grew from 500,000 to four million. And their conditions of life worsened. Many slaves were "sold downriver" from small family farms to the new cotton and sugar plantations where slaves were often worked to death. The apparatus for the suppression of slaves was greatly expanded. The Southern states were like a huge network of prison camps guarded by paid armies of man-hunters. The slaveowners stepped up their one-sided arms race aimed at a suppressed class.

The advance of European settlement eliminated many of the places where escaped slaves had once found refuge. Indians between the Appalachians and the Mississippi were defeated in a series of wars after 1812. In 1832, a year after Nat Turner's revolt, federal soldiers started the first roundups of Cherokee and Creeks for the forced march to barren plains of Oklahoma.

The "underground railroad" was needed more than ever. And, at the same time, the expansion of slave oppression stirred new resistance among the broad masses of people, especially in the North. The abolitionist movement found new sympathizers and recruits. Colleges like Antioch and Oberlin in Ohio became nerve centers of the movement. By the 1830s and '40s, radical abolitionist newspapers, like William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator and Frederick Douglass' Northern Star were sold on the streets by Black youth.

The "railroad" operating and recruiting within the larger abolitionist movement was able to expand its secret networks and illegal activities.

By the 1850s, the organized movement--still highly controversial, illegal and persecuted--was beginning to influence public opinion. Historian Howard Zinn estimates that about 1,000 slaves a year escaped to Canada and Mexico in that decade. Other estimates suggest twice as many. The activities became so widespread that, at key Ohio River crossing points, there was a problem with congestion on days when the water was frozen over.

A Woman Called Moses

The heroic conductor Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland. She helped a fellow slave escape at 15 and was beaten badly in the head by her owner, causing her to suffer dizzy spells the rest of her life. She left her husband behind when he refused to join her escape one dark summer night in 1848. Her two brothers turned back too, and she had to reach freedom alone--arriving, she later said, "as a stranger in a strange land."

Harriet immediately enlisted in the underground railroad. Over the next 10 years, she returned 19 times to deadly dangers of slave country and helped 300 men, women and children escape. Slaveowners offered a fortune--$40,000--to anyone who could kill or capture her. She carried herbal potions to quiet the cries of babies. And she kept a loaded pistol close at hand--mainly for enemies, but also to impose discipline at key moments. Harriet Tubman proudly claimed, "I never lost a single passenger."

Slaves were often shocked to meet her--the legendary liberator known as "Moses" turned out to be an unassuming Black woman, only five feet tall. Looks can be deceiving--and deceiving looks are useful in underground work.

Frederick Douglass honored Tubman, "Most of that I have done has been in public, and I have received much encouragement... While the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scared and foot sore bondsmen... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and your heroism."

Open Defiance

"I don't respect this law. I don't fear it. I won't obey it! It outlaws me and I outlaw it!"
Former slave Jarmain W. Loguen,
Syracuse, New York

In 1850 the U.S. Congress launched a deadly attack on free Blacks and the anti-slavery movement--a new Fugitive Slave Law. This law required both white citizens and local authorities to capture and help return runaways (even in Northern states that had abolished slavery). The law denied captured Black people any right to testify in court--making it much easier to seize free Black people in non-slave states and drag them back into slavery.

There was tremendous profit to be made from a new slave trade--and an army of "blackbird" slave hunters started to move North to prey on free Black communities. Free Blacks understood their great danger. Pittsburgh newspapers reported that all the city's Black waiters had disappeared--virtually overnight.

The radical abolitionist movement responded by organizing people in bold new ways. They called for the defense of escaped slaves and free Blacks by any means necessary. Militant new organizations sprang up to confront the slave-hunters. In Boston, Black people formed the League of Freedom, in Chicago the Liberty Association. In cities like Philadelphia, Albany, Syracuse and New York, the organizations contained both Black and white members. At the core of these movements were the seasoned activists of the Underground Railroad.

The Fugitive Slave law also brought the radicals new allies. Many people were shocked to see Black people dragged off northern streets into slavery. It showed how the enslavement of Black people in one region deeply affected the social, economic and political relations of the whole country.

Cleveland's committee of four women and five men helped 275 escapees in eight months. With the support of the relentless hardliner John Brown, the League of Gileadites was formed in Springfield, Massachusetts. Forty-four men and women--both Black and white--pledged to arm themselves against slavery, to be "firm, determined and cool" and "be hanged, if you must."

In Boston, the movement responded to the arrest of Anthony Burns in 1854 by mobilizing large militant crowds. A deputy was killed. And 22 U.S. military units were needed to keep crowds out of the courthouse and return Burns to slavery.

In 1859 in Troy, New York, Harriet Tubman personally led a militant action, involving thousands of Black and white people, into the local courthouse to liberate the escaped slave Charles Nalle. When the men in the front ranks were wounded, Harriet Tubman and a number of Black women rushed over their bodies. Tubman gripped Nalle's manacled hands during a wild, half-hour melee, while cops beat her on the head. Finally Nalle was pulled to freedom.

The Christiana Rebellion

On September 1851, a prominent Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch announced that he intended to recapture his two escaped slaves "or eat breakfast in hell." He tracked them down to an underground station in Christiana, Pennsylvania, run by an escaped slave named William Parker. Gorsuch showed up at Parker's home with a large armed posse of lawmen. They thought their guns and authority would carry the day. Parker had organized his neighbors into an armed response team.

Kline, the commander of the raid, rudely entered the house and yelled: "I am the United States Marshal." Parker answered that he did not care for Kline or for the United States. Kline answered, "I have heard many a Negro talk as big as you, and then have taken him. And I'll take you." Parker warned, "If you undertake it, you will have your name recorded in history."

Dozens of armed Black people came from all directions. The escaped slave, Samuel Thompson, refused to surrender. He grabbed a rifle and clubbed Gorsuch with it. Shooting broke out. When the smoke cleared. Gorsuch was dead, heading for his breakfast in hell. The U.S. military occupied Christiana with Marine troops but failed to find the escaped slaves or a jury to convict the armed rebels. Meanwhile Parker evaded the national manhunt and arrived in Canada disguised as a Quaker woman.

The Bees Will Swarm

Many abolitionists started to think of a radical solution to slavery. One Boston activist, Reverend Higginson, had been wounded in the fight to free Anthony Burns. He later said: "Brought up as we have all been, it takes the whole experience of one such case to educate the mind to the attitude of revolution." He said it was "so strange to find one's self outside of established institutions," to lower one's voice and hide one's purposes, "to see law and order, police and military on the wrong side, and find good citizenship a sin and bad citizenship a duty."

Among abolitionist leaders there was clandestine discussion about the possibility of a revolutionary war to overthrow slavery. John Brown emerged from the anti-slavery skirmishes of "Bloody Kansas" convinced that it was time to launch a war based among the slaves. His bold scheme was to establish a guerrilla army of slaves in the southern Appalachian mountains. The armed fighters would sweep into the plantation areas from mountain strongholds and liberate slaves. Those capable of fighting would become recruits in the liberation army and the rest would escape north on the underground railroad. In Brown's view, the underground railroad would now run both ways and serve as a supply line of revolutionary war--like Vietnam's famous Ho Chi Minh Trail a century later--bringing arms and supplies south to help maintain the slave army.

Brown and his supporters studied Haiti's successful slave revolution and the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon. They gathered information on the topography of the South--the location of forts, armories, and remote mountain valleys. Harriet Tubman was enthusiastic about this revolutionary plan and introduced Brown to Black activists who were to provide funds and recruits.

In January 1858, John Brown had extended discussions with Frederick Douglass. During that stay, a constitution was written for the liberated Black state that would be forged through warfare. Brown urged Douglass to help him forge liberated slaves into a disciplined fighting force: "When I strike the bees will begin to swarm," Brown told Douglass, "and I shall want you to help hive them."

Brown wanted to start the war by seizing a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the Virginia mountains, not far from his intended base area. He planned to secure weapons for the first revolutionary units. Douglass thought it was wiser to focus operations in the Deep South and avoid attacking federal installations.

John Brown pressed forward. On October 16, 1859, he launched a surprise raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal with 22 fighters, both Black and white. The raiders were pinned down and captured by U.S. army units commanded by the future Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

When Captain Brown was hanged for treason, his unrepentant last words echoed powerfully: "I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."


The fighters trained in the Underground Railroad played a prominent role in the civil war that finally came in 1861. That civil war developed into a revolutionary war that emancipated the slaves. But the capitalist class that controlled the federal government and the Union army ultimately betrayed Black people a decade later.

Harriet Tubman worked as a scout for the anti-slavery Union Army--carrying out countless dangerous missions behind Confederate lines in the Carolinas. In one expedition, she led Black and white troops in a raid on plantations, freeing 750 slaves.

In the context of civil war, Black slaves were able to escape in huge numbers. Half a million "followed the drinking gourd" north, or found their way to Union lines.

The militant resistance of the underground railroad had created favorable conditions through struggle. The secret networks liberated many thousands of enslaved people--creating justice where there was none. This movement waged a battle for public opinion and trained cadre for a revolutionary war against slavery.


Breaking the Chains--African-American Slave Resistance, William Loren Katz

The Underground Railroad, Charles L. Blockson

To Purge This Land with Blood--A Biography of John Brown, Stephen B. Oates

Eyewitness--A Living Documentary of the African American Contribution to American History, William Loren Katz

Crusade Against Slavery--Friend, Foes and Reforms 1820-1860, Louis Filler

A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present, Howard Zinn

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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